Science, Faith and Mystery

In our bombastic times there is great need for modesty in both religion and science. Isn't there enough authoritarianism in the world? Given that, it is refreshing to encounter a scientist who recognizes the limitations of his discipline to explain all things and who holds a respectful (yet challenging) perspective on religion.

The following is an excerpt from an excellent op-ed piece in The New York Times featuring an interview between Gary Gutting and Michael Ruse, a professor of philosophy and the author of the forthcoming book “Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know.”


G.G.: So do you think that we need religion to answer the ultimate question of the world’s origin?

M.R.: If the person of faith wants to say that God created the world, I don’t think you can deny this on scientific grounds. But you can go after the theist on other grounds. I would raise philosophical objections: for example, about the notion of a necessary being. I would also fault Christian theology: I don’t think you can mesh the ancient Greek philosophers’ notion of a god outside time and space with the Jewish notion of a god as a person. But these are not scientific objections.

G.G.: What do you think of Richard Dawkins’s argument that, in any case, God won’t do as an ultimate explanation of the universe? His point is that complexity requires explanation — the whole idea of evolution by natural selection is to explain the origin of complex life-forms from less complex life-forms. But a creator God — with enormous knowledge and power — would have to be at least as complex as the universe he creates. Such a creator would require explanation by something else and so couldn’t explain, for example, why there’s something rather than nothing.

M.R.: Like every first-year undergraduate in philosophy, Dawkins thinks he can put to rest the causal argument for God’s existence. If God caused the world, then what caused God? Of course the great philosophers, Anselm and Aquinas particularly, are way ahead of him here. They know that the only way to stop the regression is by making God something that needs no cause. He must be a necessary being. This means that God is not part of the regular causal chain but in some sense orthogonal to it. He is what keeps the whole business going, past, present and future, and is the explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. Also God is totally simple, and I don’t see why complexity should not arise out of this, just as it does in mathematics and science from very simple premises.

Traditionally, God’s necessity is not logical necessity but some kind of metaphysical necessity, or aseity. Unlike Hume, I don’t think this is a silly or incoherent idea, any more than I think mathematical Platonism is silly or incoherent. As it happens, I am not a mathematical Platonist, and I do have conceptual difficulties with the idea of metaphysical necessity. So in the end, I am not sure that the Christian God idea flies, but I want to extend to Christians the courtesy of arguing against what they actually believe, rather than begin and end with the polemical parody of what Dawkins calls “the God delusion.”

Read the entire piece here.